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State cuts parents' bill for youths in detention

In an effort to push parents to keep closer watch over their out-of-control children, the Legislature in 2000 decided to try a kind of tough-love policy on moms and dads across Florida.

It worked like this: Parents whose children were arrested and locked up in juvenile facilities would be charged up to $20 per day for short-term detention stays, and up to $50 per day for terms in residential treatment centers. The state hoped that painful jab to the family finances would prompt parents to keep a tighter leash on delinquent kids.

Since that law took effect last July, the state has sent more than 57,000 bills demanding parents pay a collective tab of more than $15-million.

But so far, just $350,000 has been collected.

So this year the Legislature made an unusual about-face, as lawmakers began to have second thoughts about their ability to enforce better parenting.

Under a new law, parents will pay no more than $5 per day _ a change retroactive to last July 1. In other words, the state will send new bills to most parents who already received the first 57,000 notices. The new bills will reflect the lower charges. Some parents will even get refunds. That new law goes into effect Oct. 1.

"You wish you could legislate parenting, but you can't," said Rep. Gustavo Barreiro, R-Miami Beach, chairman of the House Juvenile Justice Committee.

Parents who still fail to cough up the money at the lower rate could be referred to a collection agency early next year.

The bills have led to confusion among many parents.

Joana VonSchmidt of Largo has three of these bills, each for $70 or $80 stemming from her 13-year-old daughter's stays in detention, and she hasn't paid any. She said she can't afford to.

"Even though that doesn't seem like a lot, it's still a lot to someone who's a single mom trying to support three kids," she said one day last week, just after her daughter made a juvenile court appearance in the Pinellas County criminal courts complex.

The law does contain a provision allowing a judge to waive the fees if it would cause a financial hardship. In fact, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Marion Fleming last week reduced the fees for VonSchmidt's daughter's most recent detention stay, from $20 per day to $5 per day.

But VonSchmidt said she didn't know about that provision earlier, and wishes she had, so that her earlier bills could have been reduced too.

Cathy Corry got so irked about these bills and other aspects of the juvenile justice system that she printed up fliers on neon-bright orange, pink and green paper and has been distributing them to parents to let them know more about their rights. She also has set up a Web site (http://www.justice4kids.org).

Her orange flier tells parents they can have the fees waived if they are unable to pay, if they were the victims of the crimes for which their children were arrested, or if they "made a diligent and good faith effort" to prevent their children from committing crimes.

"People are looking at me like, "Wow, you're kidding,' " as she passes them out, she said.

Corry is an accountant who lives in Clearwater. Her 16-year-old son has been extradited to Kansas on a charge of possession of stolen property.

Asked for her opinion of billing parents for the incarceration of their children, she said, "I've been humbled." She used to think parents of kids in trouble must have been neglectful. "Now that it's happened to me, I know that's not the case."

In fact, Corry researched the law and discovered what she calls the "good parent" provision _ the one that lets parents forgo the fees if they can prove they diligently tried to prevent their child from breaking the law. Last week Fleming waived her detention fees, based on Corry's argument that she had worked to keep her son law-abiding.

Now that the law has changed, the state Department of Juvenile Justice and an agency it has hired are faced with the task of preparing new bills, mailing them out and refunding money to parents who paid more than $5 per day.

But at the moment, the department is sending out bills that it essentially knows are wrong. The bills going out now contain charges at the higher rates of up to $20 and $50 per day, even though those bills will later be reduced after the new law takes effect. The department did not have clear legislative authority to reduce the bills before then, Department of Juvenile Justice spokeswoman Catherine Arnold said.

But after the new bills have gone out, if people still fail to pay, their bills will "very likely go to a collection agency," said Bill Smith, an acting bureau chief for the department.

The department has made some other changes along the way. The next round of bills that goes out will inform parents they can receive refunds if their child was found to be not guilty after spending some time in a detention center. Previously, the bills did not let parents know that.

Can these bills _ whether they're for $5 per day or $50 _ prompt parents to keep their kids under better control?

Jack Levine, perhaps Florida's best-known child advocate, said he thinks it's worth a try. Levine stressed that it was very important for parents to be able to have the funds waived if they face a financial hardship. But he said it's appropriate for the state to put a financial penalty on those parents who are truly neglectful.

"I think one of the most important things about laws is the signal they send about responsibility," he said.

But Barreiro, the House Juvenile Justice chairman, has reservations about the department's plans to eventually send the unpaid bills to a collection agency.

"I think it's going to be really hard," he said. "If they're not taking care of their kids, they're not going to take care of a bill."

_ Curtis Krueger can be reached at kruegersptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

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